Saturday, April 20, 2024

Representation, reservation, caste census: Ashoka University students’ battle for social justice

Slogans of “Brhamanwaad, Baniyawaad Murdabad”, echoed at the Ashoka University (AU) campus on March 22 as a part of the ongoing sit-in protests while student groups managed to disrupt a talk, “Masterclass on Branding” by Sanjeev Bhikchandani, one of the founders of the varsity.

Students at the (AU) in Haryana’s Sonipat have been protesting on campus to demand reservations for marginalized castes and a comprehensive caste census for the university students, faculty, and employees since March 20th.

The motivation behind the demand is inclusive representation and social justice for all, according to the Social Justice Forum (SJF), an independent student organization that represents Scheduled Caste, Muslim, Scheduled Tribe, Kashmiri Muslim, and other ethnic minority students, leading the protests.

On March 20, which is also the 97th anniversary of ‘Mahad Satyagraha’ — a movement to assert the rights of untouchables to use water once restricted to the Savarna community led by Dr BR Ambedkar — the students under the banner of SJF launched the sit-in protest by setting up banners that read ‘Caste Census Now’.

On March 26, the protest moved outside the university gates, and as the students tried to set up the tents and banners they allegedly faced resistance from the university administration. Around 30 protesting students also slept under the tent on the night of March 26, with electricity cut off by the administration while it reportedly rained.

At least 150 students are a part of the protest.

“To Establish Constitutional Morality”

Speaking to Maktoob, Anil Kumar Bahariya, the founder of SJF and a student of master in history and sociology said, “Representation is a non-negotiable aspect of any university campus and institution, irrespective of it being a private or public and any underrepresentation, especially in the form of “caste blindness”, is a threat to the diverse discourse and community Ashoka wants to foster.”

“The private institutions are not bound to follow the reservation policy but there is one thing that is enshrined in the constitution and Ambedkar particularly talked about it. It is constitutional morality and that is one of the main reasons behind our demands in a private university.”

Bahariya said that Ashoka since its inception has failed to cultivate that constitutional morality which further pushed it to become the “most undemocratic space”, dominated by “Savarna forces”. He alleged that VC in an open meeting with the students has maintained that the institution can’t conduct a caste census because it goes against the foundational ethics of the university.

“Through this protest, we are also asking whether the so-called foundational ethics are stronger than the foundation of constitutional morality and democracy enshrined in the constitution?”

He asserted, “The administration’s silence on the matter translates into the comfort that this administration enjoys in ignoring legitimate demands for change arising from marginalised student groups, and then retaliating rather than responding once it is forced to confront them. This also substantiates that Ashoka is against the spirit of the Constitution.”

He alleged that the administration is couched with bureaucratic hand-wringing and demands made by the students were met with refusal and dismissal and hence they are forced to establish the protests.

In a response posted on X, Sanjiv Bhikchandani advised the forum to conduct a caste census on its own.

“Ashoka is a small community. If you want a census, do it yourself. Don’t depend on the admin to do it,” Bhikchandani said.

The students’ protest has garnered support from activists, staff and faculty. As per SJF, at least 50 faculty of the varsity have signed a letter endorsing the demands made by the students.

Sumit Samos, a caste commentator, writer, and doctoral fellow at Oxford University extended support of SJF’s demands for caste census and reservations.

Samos told Maktoob, “Higher education spaces are supposed to be democratic and inclusive of various social groups in the country. Many private universities like Ashoka bypass that under the guise of liberal arts & progressive institutions and with no mandate to implement reservations.”

He also said that the caste census will help to understand how certain higher caste elites are reproduced through the privatization of higher education.

He added, “Exclusive higher caste spaces with very few students and faculties from marginalized caste backgrounds are bound to create alienation and difficulties for them given how caste dynamics operate in socialization, in research, and knowledge production and hence it is important to have a clear understanding of representation in every sphere.”

“Brahminwaad Murdabad”

Videos of the protest have drawn flak on social media where students are seen shouting slogans such as “We need a caste census” and “Brahmin-Baniyawaad Murdabad”. Right-wing media have branded the slogans as casteist.

“Brahmanwaad Murdabad or end Brahminism by the students is justified as a cry to dismantle the systemic impulses that enable the discriminatory caste system prevalent in India and a criticism of the ideology that sustains casteist foundations and practices,” SJF said.

After backlash from social media user, Ashoka University issued a statement that said, “The university deplores expressions of hatred directed against any individual or group. Ashoka University’s Guidelines on Protecting Freedom of Expression have clearly laid down that such freedom of expression is not unlimited and enjoins respect for the rights and sensibilities of others. This is essential to preserving the spirit of community at Ashoka.”

Atmosphere intimidating, threatening or hostile to individuals or groups are therefore regarded as serious offences and will be met with disciplinary action, the statement reads.

Forced to protest

The physical protests are not the first time students are putting these demands in front of the administration of AU. There have been multiple attempts by the students headed by SJF previously demanding an anti-discrimination cell on the campus mentioning the ‘caste-discrimination incidents’ that took place on the campus.

On November 7 last year, the communication between the university and the students started when SJF sent an official email to Somak  Raychaudhary, Vice Chancellor of the varsity with a demand to formulate an anti-discrimination cell and to conduct a caste census at Ashoka University signed by 200 faculty, students, and staff.

In response, VC informed that they were working to establish a ‘Students Grievance Redressal Cell (SGRC)’ following the University Grants Commission and an ‘Equal Opportunities Cell (EOC)’ to deal with the instances of discrimination which will comprise elected student representatives but failed to address the students’ demands.

In December, citing departmental research at AU substantiating a remarkable caste divide and alarming under-representation of marginalized communities in terms of caste, tribes, religion, and other levels of access within the 2019 cohort of Young India Fellowship, the SJF reiterated their demand for the caste and religion census on the campus stating that university lacks inclusivity of all castes at large.

In a quick response the VC ensured to students after meeting with them in person and through email that the administration is committed to establishing the SGRC and EOC and that “various other matters were raised” such as the caste census would require discussions with various stakeholders.

On March 12, three months later, as per the SJF when the varsity failed to provide what they assured students of, which was the establishment of the SGRC and EOC, the students called to initiate a sit-in protest on March 20.

The following are the demands put forward by the student group:

 – The implementation of an annual caste census for students and staff, which is the first step in the struggle to demand reservations. 

– Sanction of funds, and organization of an annual Ambedkar Memorial Lecture event on campus, where guest speakers and panelists from marginalized communities would be invited to speak on themes of social justice (similar to Tata Institute of Social Science’s Ambedkar Memorial Lecture).

 – Removal of the late fee penalty policy of Rs 200 per day of delay including a block on the defaulters’ access to their Google classroom account and mess coupons.

Other demands include the setting up of an impartial and adequately representational interim body to register any incidents of discrimination that may occur until a formal cell is constituted, students’ representation in the formulation of the Anti-Discrimination Cell and the interim body as an added measure of holding transparency in the process.

These demands are now topped with an immediate demand for reservations for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes, as per SJF.

The SJF notes this is due to the university’s reluctance to conduct a comprehensive caste census and insistence on using their available admissions data, making it evident that there is a severe underrepresentation across SC-ST-OBC students as opposed to their proportion in the national population.

As the protest started gaining momentum and making it to the public attention through media reports, the university administration announced the setting up of EOC on March 27th, which is not a part of SJF’s demands.

The university also agreed to start an annual Ambedkar Memorial Lecture on Justice and Inclusion.

Maktoob tried to reach out to the Vice Chancellor, Somak Raychaudhary to learn their stance on the demands made by the students but multiple calls made to the Vice Chancellor went unanswered. An email has also been sent by Maktoob to the VC requesting a response regarding the protests. The report will be updated if and when we receive a response.

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